Named by American colonists for their white feathered heads, the Bald Eagle soars courageously across the great blue North American sky, unmistakably.
These mighty aerial beasts are considerable in stature, aesthetically pleasing to both the eye and camera lens. They have been symbolic in native legend, and later, representative of a nation.
The Bald Eagle is a bird of prey that is only found in North America. With a population estimated at 30,000, or about half of the total population, Alaska boasts more Bald Eagles than any other location on the continent.
Perhaps due to it being endemic to North America, it became, in 1782, the proud symbol of a new country. The Great Seal of the United States shows a wide-spread eagle having on its breast a shield with thirteen perpendicular red and white stripes, crowned by a blue field with the same number of stars. In its right talon the eagle holds an olive branch, in its left a bundle of thirteen arrows, and in its beak he carries a scroll inscribed with the motto: “E Pluribus Unum” (Out of Many, One).
One of the more famous Founding Fathers seemed to disagree that the bald eagle was worthy of such reverence (or, perhaps he just had a healthy sense of humor):
“I wish that the Bald Eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country, he is a bird of bad moral character, he does not get his living honestly, you may have seen him perched on some dead tree, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labor of the fishing-hawk, and when that diligent bird has at length taken a fish, and is bearing it to its nest for the support of his mate and young ones, the bald eagle pursues him and takes it from him…. Besides he is a rank coward; the little kingbird, not bigger than a sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district. He is therefore by no means a proper emblem for the brave and honest. . . of America.. . . For a truth, the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America . . . a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British guards, who should presume to invade his farmyard with a red coat on”
But before it was the backside of the quarter or became a symbol of American grit, the Bald Eagle was a spiritual symbol for Native Americans.
Eagles appear in many tribes’ creation stories, and are revered because of their strength, boldness and courage.
Nevermind the assessment of Mr. Franklin.
Athabaskans portrayed eagles as the deliverers of people from famine. A prince who gave an eagle a salmon during time of plenty was repaid in the lean year that followed by grateful eagles who first dragged salmon, then sea lions, and eventually whales to shore in gratitude for the prince’s kindness.
The birds are quite large, sporting a wingspan of up to 7.5 feet, weighing between 8 and 14 lbs, and are able to achieve 30 mph in flight, becoming even faster when diving after prey when they achieve upwards of 100 mph. Fish are the main diet of the bald eagle, who also dine upon waterfowl, small mammals, sea urchins, clams, crabs, and carrion.
While the birds can sometimes live longer than 30 years in the wild, their average lifespan is 15-20 years.
It takes about five years for the distinctive white plumage of both head and tail to gradually develop. Immature Bald Eagles are a mottled brown and white, and the young birds have a black beak as opposed to the adult’s yellow beak.
Bald Eagles are often found along Alaska’s coast and offshore islands where the highest nesting densities occur in southern Alaska in locales such as Homer, and the coastal waters of Kachemak Bay.
In 1917 the Alaska Territorial Legislature installed a bounty on the birds due to the salmon industry claiming the eagles were competing with their livelihood. Those claims were later discredited, but the bounty remained for 36 years and led to the killing of 120,195 eagles. After Statehood in 1949, stronger protections and improved habitat have aided in their recovery. In fact, in 2007 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has upgraded the birds from endangered to least concern.
Bald Eagles are more than just another bird. They have been symbolic in Native myth far before any of us were born, and became the seal of a Nation. They soar through the sky demanding attention. Demanding respect. They are a picture of grit and tenacity and their white heads and yellow beaks just explode in an image.
Bald Eagles are just flat out photogenic, and a staple of every wildlife photographer’s portfolio. Click here to learn more about photographing Bald Eagles with Backcountry Journeys in Alaska!
Russ Nordstrand is a professional landscape and wildlife photographer specializing in photography as fine artwork. His Fine Art Prints are hanging in homes, offices and private collections across the U.S and Canada and in many other countries throughout the world. Russ leads on average about 20 Photography Tours & Workshops each year to incredible destinations such as Yellowstone, Alaska, Glacier, Yosemite, Utah, Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, the Great Smoky Mountains and more. He also frequently writes articles on this blog on various photographic techniques, the art of composition, environmental concerns, photography and travel news as well as documenting recent adventures. Originally from the Pacific Northwest, Russ has lived in the greater Rocky Mountain West since 1999 and currently resides in beautiful Flagstaff, Arizona.